What is your speciality area?
Music and musical instruments. It’s a very diverse area so covers a lot of ground from historical to contemporary aspects through to musical traditions from a variety of cultures. We also look at music from a number of different angles that includes the science and design behind instruments as well as historical developments and also the way music has been used culturally in all its various forms. Music is found in many different contexts and you’ll see instruments from the collection on display in a wide variety of exhibitions at the museum.
Although I’ve got a background in music I also have a strong history and social sciences training so I’ve got a particular interest in Australian instrument makers, especially those that are now long forgotten. When possible I try to revive interest in them through research and articles and by putting their works on display or helping organise a performance where one might be played. Organising some of the performances at the museum is another part of the job.
How long have you been working at the Museum?
Is that a polite question to ask? I’ve been the curator in this area since 1998 but began working with the music collection in 1985.
What is your favourite object in the collection?
The whole collection is fascinating so that’s a tough one to answer. That being said though, one of my faves is the Maccaferri plastic guitar that you can see below. Another is this small banjo mandolin I’m holding in the photo which was made in Australia in the late 1940s or 1950s. This one was donated to the museum by Melbourne instrument maker Roger Buckmaster. Pacific was the name of an instrument company that was established by Hec McLennan in Melbourne and made guitars as well as these smaller instruments. They started in the 1940s around about the same time as Maton Guitars did, but possibly initially used McLennan’s name in the early stages rather than Pacific.
One of the reasons I like them is that rather than being high end collectables or professional instruments they were a basic day-to-day instrument that anyone might play and which today aren’t very widely known. They were at the lower end of the market using fairly cheap materials, which might account for the condition of some of them today – they were probably well used as a knock-around instrument rather than kept in a pristine state which might happen to more up market models. They often used paint stencils for their name and other things such as fret markers, rather than having actual inlay in the fingerboard. The guitars they made also used stencils on the body sometimes with figures of cowboys or even palm trees to add an exotic touch. The banjo mandolin is an intriguing thing in itself – one of a range of instruments that seem to have been cross bred with something else (in this case the banjo and the mandolin). To take the idea further…we’ve also got a walking stick violin in the collection! We don’t have much information about Hec McLennan and Pacific so I’d love to hear more if anyone knows.
What piece of research or exhibition are you most proud of in your career at the Museum?
In terms of research probably the work I’ve done on nineteenth century makers such as John Devereux (bowed strings) or Jordan Wainwright (flutes), both of who were amongst some of the earliest professional makers working in the European tradition in Australia and which not much was known about. Over the years we’ve also commissioned instruments from present day makers to document their work and have also commissioned some new music for exhibitions and programs from composers, both of which have been great ways for the museum to make a link with the creative process. For exhibitions one of the highlights with hindsight was working with the team on Ngaramang Bayumi: an exhibition about Australian Indigenous music and dance. It broke some new ground for the museum and involved lots of people working with us from the arts and communities around Australia. Working with Coxie and Brakie on the rock and roll exhibition, Real Wild Child, was a hoot too!